The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too. (Christopher Clark, on the perception of pre-1914 politics.)
Unlike the precipitate
causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their
interpretation remains the topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we
dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in which
the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these
conditions in mind when we review what happened.
I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war” – as Clausewitz had famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.
II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic government option, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.
III. Due to erroneous lessons drawn from the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918 and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.
IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power”  Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.
 In 1961, Professor Fritz Fischer of Hamburg University published “Griff nach der Weltmacht” (which translates as ‘A Grip for World Power’ but was titled in its 1967 English translation “Germany’s Aims in the First World War”). The book unveils the abyss of a German conspiracy for world supremacy, which apparently was undertaken by all sorts of influential people, from generals to newspaper owners, by their dreaming up nasty plans for world domination after they had won the war. The introduction by Hajo Holborn of Yale argues that Germany strove to become “a ‘world power’, equal to Britain and Russia, and that her citizens “displayed a shocking disregard for the rights of other nations, especially of the small states.” (5) While examples for these assertions can be found without difficulty, they seem to be beside the point: all these arguments can be reciprocated by “to quoque”; for why should Germany not strive to world power if Great Britain, France, the United States or Russia did? In regards to the freedom of other nations, Indians, Boers or Chinese could teach lessons about British concern for their rights and Cubans or Philippines comment on American charity. One may speculate what kind of social order Tsarist Russia or the Ottomans of Turkey would have imposed over conquered territories. Mutatis mutandis, none of these German plans ever saw the lights of factuality, while French revanchism ran rampant after 1918 and in its inflexibility much aided the demise of the German Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. What Griff nach der Weltmacht provided was an ex post facto argument that Germany’s sinister plans justified the war; that the victors saved humanity from eternal Teutonic overlordship. This is pure utilitarianism, entelechial adjudication a posteriori, and thus of little significance in this investigation.
But to some degree,
colonization was a game, a show; while the gold and diamonds of the Cape provinces and the copper, ores and
minerals from the Ugandan mines unquestionably were great economic boons for
Great Britain, and other possessions
could at least serve as strategic bases or coaling
stations, there were just as many places which were useless, or, worse, a drain
on resources. Most of the German possessions fell into this category. Yet
psychological contemplations counted just as much, sometimes more, than profit
or strategy. There was a theory that many statesmen subscribed to; the thesis
that the riches of the globe would ultimately divided between a very small
number of contenders. The British Secretary of State for the Colonies and
pro-German Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain believed that “the tendency
of the time is to throw all power into the hands of the greater empires, and
the minor kingdoms – those which are non- progressive – seem to fall into a
secondary and subordinate place ….” (2) The French politician Darcy
opined that “… those who do not advance go backwards and who goes back
goes under.” (3)
Because of her fragile
inner condition, Germany depended, in a sense, on success in her foreign
policy, which included some more exotic colonialist adventures. Paul Kennedy
There remained the danger that failure to achieve diplomatic or territorial successes would affect the delicate internal politics of Wilhelmine Germany, whose Junker elite worried about the (relative) decline of the agricultural interest, the rise of organised labour, and the growing influence of Social Democracy in a period of industrial boom.
It was true that after 1897 the pursuit of Weltpolitik was motivated to a considerable extent by the calculation that this would be politically popular and divert attention from Germany’s domestic-political fissures.
But the regime in Berlin always ran the dual risk that if it backed down from a confrontation with a “foreign Jupiter” , German nationalist opinion might revile and denounce the Kaiser and his aides; whereas, if the country became engaged in an all-out war, it was not clear whether the natural patriotism of the masses of workers, soldiers, and sailors would outweigh their dislike of the archconservative Prusso-German state. While some observers felt that a war would unite the nation behind the emperor, others feared it would further strain the German socio-political fabric. (4)
 Here Kennedy relates to a famous speech of Bernhard von Bülow, then Foreign Minister, who complained in 1899: “We cannot allow any foreign power, any foreign Jupiter to tell us: ‘What can be done? The world is already partitioned.'”
Yet at the same time, Kennedy argues, the overall vexations of Germany were not too dissimilar from those experienced by other nations, for all of them, whether more liberal England or more authoritative Russia, felt the need for the establishment – and retention – of a “place in the sun”, which ought to deflect the public attention from the increasing social conflicts of the industrial age.
It has been argued by many historians that imperial Germany was a “special case,” following a ‘Sonderweg’ (“special path”), which would one day culminate in the excesses of National Socialism. Viewed solely in terms of political culture and rhetoric around 1900, this is a hard claim to detect:
Russian and Austrian anti-Semitism was at least as strong as German [the French Dreyfus affair might compete as well, ¶], French chauvinism as marked as the German, Japan’s sense of cultural uniqueness and destiny as broadly held as Germany’s. Each of these powers examined here was “special,” and in the age of imperialism was all too eager to assert its specialness. (7) 
 Paul Kennedy adds: “In this age of the ‘new imperialism,’ similar calls [as in Germany] could be heard in every other Great Power; as Gilbert Murray wickedly observed in 1900, each country seemed to be asserting, ‘We are the pick and flower of nations … above all things qualified for governing others.'” (9)
factors of the ongoing imperialist competition, however, were of a nature that
the governments in question could not simply mollify by a new treaty with power
X or the establishment of one more army corps. They had a life of their own,
and in retrospect it would seem that what the continental powers crucially
lacked were reliable crisis- control mechanisms.
It was Christopher Clark who recently, in “The Sleepwalkers” [Allen Lane, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0713999426], had the beneficial idea to have a critical look at who and what exactly the people were who did, in fact, determine the fate of the continent (and much of the world) in these hot days of July 1914, respectively in the years preceding this summer.
we survey the European chancelleries in the spring and early summer of 1914, it
is impossible not to be struck by the unfortunate configuration of
personalities. From Castelnau and Joffre to Zhilinsky, Conrad von Hötzendorf,
Wilson and Moltke, the senior military men were all exponents of the strategic
offensive who wielded a fluctuating but important influence on the political
In 1913-14 first Delcassé, then Paléologue, both hardliners, represented France in St. Petersburg; Izvolsky, still determined to avenge the “humiliation” of 1909, officiated in Paris. The French minister in Sofia, Andre Panafieu, observed in December 1912 that Izvolsky was the “best ambassador in Paris,” because he had “personal interests against Germany and Austria,” and his Russian colleagues noticed that whenever he came to speak of Austrian policy vis-a-vis Belgrade his voice took on “a palpable tone of bitterness which had not left him since the time of the annexation.”The excitable Austrophobe Miroslav Spalajković was now at the Serbian ministry in St. Petersburg – his old enemy Count Forgach was helping to formulate policy in Vienna. One is reminded of a Harold Pinter play where the characters know each other very well and like each other very little. [Sleepwalkers, p. 358-9]
Yet behind the facades,
their masculinity was of the brittle sort. If we look at the photographs – as
Stefan Zweig observed, their pompousness makes us laugh – that portray their
stiff officiousness, burliness, lovingly tendered moustaches and uncomfortable
clothing, we recognize vanity – men for whom appearances were the armour of the
soul and who projected overdrawn notions of ego and honour as well as
clandestine dread of volatility and impotence upon the battlefield of
diplomacy, and when words failed they substituted blood – that of younger men.
At no time was the “honour” of nations an important if imaginary quality like then, in whose pursuit tens of millions of men were slaughtered and maimed. The sizable egos of fin-de-siècle manhood, however, came with that sort of irascibility which the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia had so successfully targeted. Of course, the Serbian government – well aware of its laxity towards terrorist organizations – could have taken the unruffled point of view that ten years later no one would care whether a few Austrian detectives had pursued their own investigations in Belgrade after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand or not, and it would seem that except for the rapid Russian intervention Pasić would have grudgingly submitted to the Austrian yoke. But once the honour of the Serbian nation – not always its most conspicuous characteristic – was in doubt, acquiescence was impossible – et pereat mundus.
While St. Petersburg discussed the mobilization scenarios, Bethmann Hollweg in Berlin presented Wilhelm’s idea of an Austrian “Halt in Belgrade” (that a temporary Austrian occupation of Belgrade might suffice), as the Kaiser’s proposal of the 28th came to be known, to Vienna on the evening of the same day – albeit in a watered-down form. In his initial cable, a sceptical Hollweg minimized the impact of His Master’s Voice by cautioning Tschirschky to carefully “avoid giving the impression that we wish to restrain Austria.” But on the next day, July 29, the chancellor changed his tune, perhaps cautioned by Lichnowsky’s warnings that England seemed likely to stand by the Triple Entente yet considered a demarche in the direction of a “Halt in Belgrade” solution possible, and instructed Tschirschky to:
“Please communicate the enclosed1 to Count Berchtold at once, adding that we regard such compliance on the part of Serbia as suitable basis for negotiations on condition of an occupation of Serbian territory as a guarantee.” (3) [1: A copy of Lichnowsky’s telegram from London, which laid out an Italian proposal to get the Great Powers, i.e. France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy to formulate terms under which Serbia could accept the Austrian ultimatum in toto, and cited Sir Grey’s opinion that it might be “possible to bring about an understanding as to the extent of Austrian military operations and demands,” which in turn Hollweg thought close enough to the HALT IN BELGRADE proposal that England would also support the latter.]
Initially, Hollweg had been less than pleased with Wilhelm’s
initiative for, essentially of little flexibility, he was loath to give up
his policy of ‘localization’ of the conflict, although it became more likely
with every passing day that Russia could not be neutralized. The chancellor did
not believe that Russia would resort to war, but if she threatened to do so, he
was prepared to call the bluff. It was no bluff, it turned out – Russia, sure
of France and almost sure of Great
Britain, did not blink. The prospect of unintended consequences occasioned a
change in the chancellor’s opinion – Wilhelm’s offer of mediation began
to make sense.
In the night of July 29/30, Hollweg instructed Tschirschky to tell Berchtold that:
are, of course, prepared to fulfill our duty as allies, but must decline to let
ourselves be dragged by Vienna, irresponsibly and without regard to our advice,
into a world conflagration.” (4)
Suddenly the dynamics of
Austro-German relations had exchanged their polarity – initially the German
government had urged Vienna to speedy action, so as to pre-empt all these
problems that now towered before the two, while Austria had been her usual
perfunctory self – now, as Hollweg sought to pull the emergency brake,
Berchtold turned a deaf ear. But instead of doubling his efforts, Hollweg
quickly fell back into apathy, submitting his own fate and that of the nation
to the preordained but unfathomable offices of Divine Providence. It should
have been clear by then that the best scenario available to the German chancellor
was to urge on, nay, force the Kaiser’s proposal, HALT IN BELGRADE, down Berchtold’s throat, no matter the cost.
But this Hollweg did not do – he did not correspond at all with Tschirschky on the matter on this morning of July 30. Instead, he spent the day preoccupied by the tumultuous commotion but little constructive discussion precipitated in Berlin by the Tsar’s ominous telegram of 1:20 am, July 30 – the one that mentioned the “military measures … decided five days ago,” and the delayed receipt of Pourtales’s message sent on 3 pm the day before, informing Berlin of the Russian mobilization. The bad news sparked the Kaiser’s famous comments:
that [the five days mentioned by the Tsar] is
almost a week ahead of us. And these measures are supposed to be of
defence against Austria, who is not attacking
him!!! I cannot commit myself to mediation any more, since the Tsar, who
appealed for it, has at the same time been secretly mobilizing behind my back.
is only a
manoeuvre to keep us dangling and
increase the lead
he has already gained over us.
According to this the Tsar with his appeal for my help has simply been acting a part and leading us up the garden path! That means I have got to mobilize as well!” (5)
The Congress of Berlin had not only addressed questions of the Balkans but many other points of interest, and one of its results had been that Bismarck and Disraeli had granted France “a free hand in Tunis,” for they much favoured to keep France busy in the Mediterranean instead of courting Russia. License for France, however, irked Italy, which felt a need to acquire new possessions; why exactly, nobody knew, for she was rather underdeveloped and would be expected to do her homework first, but she seemed to labour from a case of the aforementioned psychological desiderata of successful imperialism.
In 1880, France invaded Tunisia and established a protectorate over the region, but because at this time Gladstone and the liberals were in power in England, far more sceptical to French acquisitions in Africa than Disraeli and Lord Salisbury had been, Italy thought she might enlist British aid for her own designs on Tunisia. But England was loath to replace a French threat to her Mediterranean position with a potentially worse Italian one and Rome got nowhere. Having arrived there, only an understanding with Germany could help, but then Bismarck was no friend of Italy, which he accused of pursuing a “jackal policy”. Thus it took another eighteen months of horse-trading before, on May 20, 1882, Germany,Austria and Italy signed the First Treaty of the “Triple Alliance“, valid for five years.
The contract began with the assurance that the parties “have agreed to conclude a Treaty which by its essentially conservative and defensive nature pursues only the aim of forestalling the dangers that might threaten the security of Their States and the Peace of Europe.” Because it was exactly such conservative, peaceful and defensive agreements that proved unable to stop the conflagration of 1914, we shall have a look at a few of its clauses, summarized by Luigi Albertini:
The High Contracting Parties mutually promised peace and friendship, pledged themselves to enter into no alliance or engagement directed against one of their States and to exchange views on political and economic questions of a general nature that might arise, [and] promised mutual support within the limits of their own interests (Article I).
Austria and Germany undertook in the case of unprovoked attack by France to go to the help of Italy with all their forces. The same obligation was to devolve upon Italy in the case of an aggression by France on Germany without direct provocation (Article II).
If one or two of the High Contracting Parties, without direct provocation on their part, should chance to be attacked and engaged in war with two or more Great Powers not signatories of the treaty, the casus foederis would arise simultaneously for all the High Contracting Parties (Article III).
In the case that one of the three allies was forced to make war on a Great Power, not a signatory to the Treaty, which threatened its security, the two others would maintain benevolent neutrality, each reserving to itself the right, if it saw fit, to take part in such a war at the side of its ally (Article IV). (28)
The attentive reader will have identified two problems: the first in the clause that applies if one of the signatories is “… forced to make war …“ which entirely leaves open the question under which conditions this might be the case. Second, some scenarios were left out; for example, the contract would not apply if Austria would be attacked by Russia alone. The alliance was, of course, directed against France; Bismarck, whose opinion of the Italians had not much improved, saw the purpose of the Triple Alliance less in winning Italy but in preventing her from associating with France [and when exactly that happened in 1915, Bismarck’s voice thundered from the grave “I told you so!”, ¶]. By 1888, Romania had essentially joined the Triple Alliance, and the situation at this time is often regarded as Bismarck’s new, post-1871, continental equilibrium: France was isolated, and Bismarck himself would ensure that the interests of Russia and Austria on the Balkan would not collide. GreatBritain’s interests would profit from a stabilization of the continent as well and Russia’s aspirations on the Straits were, for the moment, impeded by Romania.
But Italy remained a complicated customer; she had hoped to gain a seat on the highest table with her signature on the Triple Alliance, but had to find out that the “Dreikaiserbund” courts, Berlin, Vienna and St.Petersburg, debated Balkan affairs, in which Rome believed to have a voice, without her. Yet despite the Dreikaiserbund, Austro-Russian tensions developed over Bulgaria, in whose affairs Austria wanted to retain an interest that Russia was not willing to grant her.
After some mending of socks, the Triple Alliance was renewed on February 20, 1887 on identical terms, except for the addition of an Austro-Italian protocol that attempted to regulate the parties’ interests in the Balkan, and a German-Italian agreement in which Italy reassured herself of German assistance in the case of a clash with France in central or western North Africa.
Bismarck saw room for a further improvement of the status quo if Great Britain and Italy were to come to an understanding against France, and when Franco-British relations in regard to Egypt had taken one more dive after the French Prime Minister Freycinet publicly declared “that France could not allow Egypt to pass permanently under English rule because ‘he who is master of Egypt is in large part master of the Mediterranean,'” Lord Salisbury began to make overtures to Italy. Albertini remarks that he “had got to the point of half wishing for another Franco-German war to put a stop to French vexations.” In the spring of 1887 Italy and Great Britain signed an agreement regarding the retention of the status quo and pledging mutual support in Africa, an understanding Austria joined in late March 1887 to the chagrin of the aggressive Hungarian faction. But it seemed not to have come to Italy’s attention that her planned occupation of Tripoli, which belonged to the Ottomans, might constitute a change of this status quo, and when the Italian Foreign Minister Crispi wrote to Salisbury to inform him of the plan which would, as he said, solely anticipate a similar French plan, Salisbury made clear that British support would not extend to such adventures. He wrote back:
“The interests of Great Britain as also those of Italy do not permit that Tripolitania should have a fate similar to that of Tunisia. We must absolutely guard against such an eventuality when it threatens us. …
If Italy were to occupy Tripoli in time of peace without France having taken any aggressive measure, she would expose herself to the reproach of having revived the Near Eastern question in very disadvantageous conditions.”
On the eastern side of the Triple Alliance, Austria seemed to contemplate war with Russia over Serbia and Bulgaria. Kalnoky, the new Austrian Foreign Minister, approached Bismarck with his generals’ wish to clarify the exact conditions under which the casus foederis under the Austro-German Alliance of 1879 would arise. The problem was that the Reinsurance Treaty was secret and had to remain so and hence Bismarck had to prevaricate. The Austro-German Alliance, he replied, provided for German assistance in the case of a Russian attack on Austria, but not for an Austrian attack on Russia, as he thought to have made clear to the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin in January 1886:
“If Russia attacks Austria-Hungary, Germany will come to her assistance with all her forces, but it is not possible to let Germany play the role of auxiliary army to increase Austro-Hungarian influence on the Danube. Not a member of parliament would be found to vote even a single mark for such a purpose.”(33)
In a speech to the Reichstag on January 11, 1887, Bismarck had publicly clarified, with an eye to the Hungarian hotheads that:
“Our relations with Austria-Hungary are based on the consciousness of each one of us that the whole existence of each as a Great Power is a necessity to the other in the interests of European equilibrium; but these relations do not, as they are interpreted at times in the Hungarian Parliament, rest on the principle that one of the two nations puts itself and its whole strength and policy completely at the service of the other.
This is an utter impossibility. There exist specifically Austrian interests which we cannot undertake to defend, and there are specifically German interests which Austria cannot undertake to defend. We cannot each adopt the other’s special interests.”
Austria had become the problem in both the Triple Alliance – for perpetual Austro-Italian tensions – and the Dreikaiserbund, due to her frequent spats and spars with Russia. In the winged words of Norman Stone, “Austria-Hungarywas trying to act the part of a great power with the resources of a second-rankone.” It was a sign of the respect Bismarck commanded in all European capitals that he was able to balance the diverging interests of Germany’s allies as long as he was inoffice.
But, as Luigi Albertini commented, “Bismarck’s resignation in March 1890 produced a sense of dismay all over Europe. His authority and prestige, the veneration which surrounded him, the fear he inspired, were beyond compare,”and observed that “the youthful sovereign who had dropped him [Wilhelm II] had no policy of his own, and a sinister influence on German foreign relations was exercised by the tortuous Holstein who, in his hatred for Bismarck, reversed all the latter’s directives.”
All in all, the Triple Alliance never truly existed.
Germany’s lifeline to St. Petersburg ruptured quickly. Only three months after Bismarck’s dismissal, the Russian Ambassador Shuvalov showed up in Berlin to renew the Reinsurance Treaty for another six years, but encountered disinterest bordering on hostility. Still, both Tsar and the Pan-Slavs remained sceptical of Paris, the former for its republicanism, the latter because they relied on Germany to keep Austria in check on the Balkans. Yet French perseverance began to pay off. Paris offered to float numerous Russian loans at advantageous conditions, sold weapons cheaply, and endeared the Tsar by arresting a few of the more obnoxious Russian anarchist émigrés that lived in France, of the sort that had assassinated the Tsar’s father Alexander II in 1881. In August 1890, the French Chief of the General Staff Boisdeffre was invited to the Russian summer manoeuvres and there was introduced to his Russian colleague Obruchev and the Minister of War. Yet again it seems that it was Italy that unblocked the mutual suspicions between Paris and St. Petersburg, when her new PrimeMinister Rudini notified parliament of the 1891 renewal of the Triple Alliance”in a form which created the impression that it had been in some measure joined by England.”
This was an ominous mistake, for if it were true, Russia had no choice but to entice France, Albion’s old enemy, as a counterweight, and in this age of secret treaties one could not check whether it was a lie. Thus Russia initiated tender diplomatic overtures to France which ended, in summer 1891, in the unheard of invitation of the French fleet to a visit at Kronstadt, Russia’s principal naval base in the Baltic, on the doorsteps of St. Petersburg, at the occasion of which the French Ambassador Laboulaye proposed that the two nations enter an agreement to further the continental peace. A memorandum was drawn up with rather unseemly haste, and on August 27, 1891, the French government approved a letter delivered by the Russian Ambassadorin Paris, which stated that the Tsar had approved the following outlines:
“1.With the aim of defining and consecrating the ENTENTE CORDIALE which unites them, and in the desire to contribute by common accord to the maintenance of peace, which forms the object of their most sincere desires, the two Governments declare that they will concert on all questions of a nature to endanger general peace.
2.In the case that this peace were actually in peril, particularly in the case that one of the two parties were menaced by aggression, the two parties undertake to concert in advance measures to be taken immediately and simultaneously if the eventuality contemplated should actually arise.”
Elementary scrutiny,however, tells us that the interests of the prospective endorsers of the agreement were far from overlapping, and the declarations of peaceful intent cannot obscure their different motivations: France hoped to enlist the sort of Russian aid without which she could not hope to overcome Germany; yet Russia’s problem was not Germany but Great Britain, which blocked her designs on the Straits and expansion toward the Caucasus and Persia. Thus it took an additional twenty months of haggling and dickering until the Entente Cordiale was finally signed in January 1894, and the Franco- Russian pact that Bismarck had feared was reality. Even then, the foreign policy aims of the two signatories were far from identical, and it was less the incoherent political invocations than the military agreement that became important. In the first two paragraphs, the arrangement laid out the following scenarios for outright defence or mobilization in a crisis:
“1.If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all forces at her disposal to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all the forces at her disposal to combat Germany.
2.In the case in which the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of the Powers forming part of it were mobilized, France and Russia at the first announcement of the event and without need of preliminary agreement will immediately and simultaneously mobilize the whole of their forces and move them as near as possible to their frontiers.”
The operative memorandum that followed the protocol laid down the number of troops that were to be committed against Germany; France would dispatch 1.3 million men and Russia between700,000 and 800,000. In addition, the general staffs of the nations were to meet at specified intervals to harmonize operational planning and prepare troop coordination, there would be no separate peace, and the Entente would last, in strict secrecy, as long as the Triple Alliance existed.
Again, the treaty was technically defensive, but, as in the Triple Alliance, some possible scenarios made little sense or tended to provoke ill-advised complications. If, for example, Austria were to mobilize against Russia in a Balkan conflict, France would also be obliged to mobilize. Since France and Austria had no common border, this move would not only make no military sense but would lead to German mobilization, which in turn might well provoke the war that the alliance was supposed to avoid. As Luigi Albertini observed, “the French endeavoured to remedy this incongruity, but ended by resigning themselves to the consideration that, in an Austro-Russian conflict, France and Germany could notstand aside.”
This was of course all too true, as 1914 would prove, and it is exactly the smart approval of the likely scenario that makes one doubt very much the honesty of the French government’s assertions that she was driven into the war of 1914 involuntary, solely because of her treaty obligations to Russia. Essentially, the Franco-Russian alliance guaranteed that revanche would occur in the near future; all that remained was to find a suitable pretext and to determine a suitable date.9 What was true in 1894 was even truer twenty years later: on May 29, 1914, the American President Wilson’s envoy to Europe, Colonel House, wrote his master that “whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.”
Whether outright war or mobilization, neither side had illusions about the decisiveness of the prospective military measures, nor were they unaware that the defensive character of the treaty might change in time.
The chauvinists of both countries expected much more from the alliance than did the Governments which concluded it. Moreover, in later years, like the Austro-German alliance, it lost its strictly defensive character to adapt itself to other ends; and the generals who negotiated the military agreement perfectly understood the consequences of the mobilizations contemplated in the agreement.
General Obruchev in the course of negotiations remarked that “to his idea the beginning of French and Russian mobilization cannot now be regarded as a peaceful act; on the contrary it is the most decisive act of war; i.e., would be inseparable from an aggression”. Boisdeffre, likewise, said to theTsar: “Mobilization is declaration of war. To mobilize is to oblige one’s neighbour to do the same. Mobilization causes the carrying out of strategic transport and concentration. Otherwise, to allow a million men to mobilize on one’s frontiers without at once doing the same oneself is to forfeit all possibility of following suit, is to put oneself in the position of an individual with a pistol in his pocket who allows his neighbour to point a weapon at his head without reaching for his own.” To which Alexander III replied: “That is how I too understand it”. The importance and the consequences of this judgement were to come to the fore in July 1914 when Russia was to be the first Power to order general mobilization.
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